Ottawa ~ A capital idea!

I have a confession to make. I had no idea where Ottawa was or that it was Canada’s capital until I felt the nudge to visit. So I looked it up and, low and behold, it was in a perfect location to stop by on our tour through a bit of Ontario and Quebec. And I must say we thoroughly enjoyed our quick visit.

Actually both the man child and I were totally impressed with Canada, except maybe the fuel prices, which were a good 50% higher than what we are paying at our home in the Midwest. But adventure is out the door and not here, so it is worth the price of fuel. Besides, with a Class B RV you don’t worry about hotel rooms or eating out constantly, so fuel is really the biggest expense.

We left our visit to Old Montreal (Blog post here: and headed toward Ottawa. Only 200 kilometers (124 miles) to the west, this town was easy to arrive at. We were surprised there were no rest stops between Montreal and Ottawa on Highway 417 (The Trans Canada Hwy), as we had been thoroughly spoiled on our trip to Montreal, but the gas stations were plentiful. We also located a Tim Horton’s, and, I am so sorry Canada if Tim Horton’s defines who you are, but we loved them. I am convinced in 20 years as man child looks back on his Canadian spring break trip, it’s going to be with a fondness colored by Tim Horton’s doughnuts.

For those new to traveling Canada, make a note that you’ll want to fill up in Ontario where gas is much cheaper than Quebec. By a lot actually! We noted a difference of about 20 cents a liter, which equates to about 75 cents per gallon.

We travel very spontaneously and I had my eye out for a place for us to boondock as we drove into and through Ottawa. I am new at this game, boondocking and traveling with your bed in your van, so I am constantly balancing looking for a safe looking area to park overnight along with our need for a restroom before we head to bed, the van being winterized at this point. Push come to shove it wouldn’t be the end of the world to use the toilet in the van, but, given this is our first year with our Roadtrek, I am still really unfamiliar with the systems.

My happiness in arriving turned to shear joy when I spotted an Ikea just off the Highway 417 in Napean. Living in the Midwest, we only see these as we traverse big cities, so stopping is a given. Plus I have an older daughter who just moved into her own apartment with a birthday coming up, so it was a win-win situation: Mom shops and knocks a birthday gift off the list. Plus I had heard that Ikeas are often friendly to overnight camping and thought we could ask if we decided to stay. But I really became elated when I realized my American dollar was worth more, at this juncture, so everything was going to come with a discount. WooHoo! This turned out to be the first of two visits – another one made on our way out of town – to outfit the van with a mattress that can be rolled up when not traveling. Our bed just went from suitable to comfortable and it was worth the money. We passed on staying the night at this Ikea as it was right next to the highway and we didn’t want highway noise all night.

In the end we realized we were about 10 minutes from a hotel, free courtesy of Dad’s hotel points, and as it had been 3 days with no shower and we really needed some do some laundry, this was probably the best option. Additionally everything was turning to ice on the roads as an icy drizzle started, which later turned into two inches of snow, and if seemed like we just needed to be off the roads for the night. All in all it was a good night to stop. I did notice the large back parking lot of our hotel as we pulled out the next morning and thought that might come in handy if we needed a second night in Ottawa.

The Parliament building.
The Parliament building.

The next morning we were out the door to visit Parliament Hill. Coincidentally this was a Sunday but we discovered that is the perfect time to go. Street parking was free and we quickly secured a spot just about 4 blocks from Parliament Hill on Albert Street in front of another Tim Horton’s (doughnuts not sampled this day). We parked and walked over to Wellington St. amazed that in a major city there is still free parking downtown. Parking restrictions seemed geared to Monday through Friday during work hours so this could actually have been a good boondocking site during the weekend, anywhere along the city streets south of Parliament Hill.

This was the highlight of our visit to Ottawa. I was amazed that the visit to Parliament Hill was free. Tickets are now available at Parliament Hill itself (not across the street as shown on their website). I thought their system was super efficient – you show up and can get tickets to upcoming tours at the hour convenient for you, provided they still have them.

We arrived too late to see the changing of the guard at Parliament Hill (9:45 am) but early enough to still get tickets for the day. Note you’ll go through double security to get in and the size of bags is restricted, but we checked through easily enough. While waiting for your tour, there is plenty to see and do. We took the elevator up to the Peace Tower. It took about 20 minutes of waiting (on a cold March day so add to this if you are going during peak times), but eventually we made it to the front of the line and were sent up an elevator to an observation area high up in the tower of the Parliament building. From here you can see all of Ottawa, plus across the Ottawa River into Quebec. There were interesting historical facts posted throughout the tower and it gave you a great view of the various parts of the Parliament building and the grounds. We also saw the U.S. Embassy from up high.

A view of the U.S. Embassy.
A view of the U.S. Embassy.

After we were done viewing, we took the elevator down and then entered the Memorial Chamber, which houses the Books of Remembrance bearing the names of all those who have perished in the wars Canada has fought in since confederation in 1867. Each morning at 11 am a page is turned in each book so that each name is seen at least once in the year. The Chamber was beautiful and a fitting tribute to those who have died in their nation’s defense. We spent a good deal of time looking at each book and the year it was completed. Man child was intent on locating a family name, as family on his dad’s side came out of Quebec in the 1800’s. No similar names were found and I just enjoyed looking at the beautiful calligraphy and wondered how much time it had taken to prepare each book.

A focal point in the Memorial Chamber holding some of the Books of Remembrance.
A focal point in the Memorial Chamber holding some of the Books of Remembrance.
Man child reading one of the Books.
Man child reading one of the Books.

After we viewed the books, we went back downstairs to await our tour time. I will say I really loved listening to the young tour guides switch back and forth between flawless English and flawless French. Some had slight accents, but all were fully functional in English and, I imagine, French also. After two years of high school French I can only conjugate one French verb and am not fully functional. I redeemed myself in later years with Spanish, which was so helpful in figuring things out on this trip, since both have the same language roots.

Queen Victoria at attention in the Parlimentary Library.
Queen Victoria at attention in the Parlimentary Library.
Inside the library. This was built separated from the main building and with iron doors to protect the contents in case of fire. In fact, those design features did save this library after a fire started. One of the librarians had the presence of mind to shut the iron doors, thereby saving the documents within.
Inside the library. This was built separated from the main building and with iron doors to protect the contents in case of fire. In fact, those design features did save this library after a fire started. One of the librarians had the presence of mind to shut the iron doors, thereby saving the documents within.

The tour ran about 50 minutes and took us by the Commons chambers, into the Library of Parliament and then into the Senate chambers. The architecture is stunning, at least to us Americans, and reminded the man child and I we have yet to see Europe. The tour was highly informative and gave so much information about how government works in Canada. It was even fun to see the large chairs with red velvet for the Governor General and his spouse and imagine them sitting in them, as the Queen in absentia, presiding over the working of government in Canada. Okay, so maybe that a little fanciful, but it was grand to see and hear how it all works for our Northern neighbors.

Could this be bonnie Prince Charles? I believe this was called the Monarch's area outside of the Senate Chambers.
Could this be bonnie Prince Charles? I believe this was called the Monarch’s area outside of the Senate Chambers.

We lunched in our van after leaving the tour, still parked in the same spot downtown, as there are no hour restrictions on the weekend and then made our way to an ice skating rink man child had spotted from way up high when we were on the observation deck. He wanted to skate. While the Sens Rink of Dreams was free, there were no skates to rent.. We watched the families skating while sitting in front of Ottawa City Hall and then made our way over the Laurier St. bridge to see the Rideau Canal, also a skate way and an UN World Heritage site. Unfortunately, it had closed for the season as the ice had started to melt so there wasn’t much to see here.

Sens Ice Rink in front of Ottawa City Hall.
Sens Ice Rink in front of Ottawa City Hall.

About this point it was time to warm up and Mom noticed a shopping mall so we headed off that way, arriving at Rideau Shopping Centre just as the stores were starting to close. But it was nice and warm inside and packed with people on this chilly Sunday. We thought about getting haircuts at the salon spotted in the mall but the quote of $30 for the man child and $60 for mom, even with the great Canadian to American dollar exchange rate, was far more than we normally pay.

With that we headed back to our van and thus ended our visit to Ottawa that day. Driving out of Canada on Highway 416, we were surprised to see we were just one hour away from upper New York State. We tracked the Rideau River down, as our highway paralleled this waterway, and it was fun to relive the small geography and history lesson we had gotten on our Parliamentary tour and think of all those people in history that had followed this waterway into the United States. Not so different from us, all these years later, following a highway down in our Roadtrek.

Stealth Camping in Montreal’s Old City

To be honest I didn’t know how it was going to work. The plan was to go and see and I wasn’t quite sure where we would park the van, much less camp in it. But things always have a way of working out and worrying about it before hand doesn’t help that happen, so off we went to Montreal, lickety-split, after our quick tour of Niagara Falls.

Niagara Falls viewed from the American side. The falls and river were just beginning to break up and flow well. Canada is across the river.

It was quite the drive to Montreal from Niagara, about 8 hours all told. We were determined not to stop, unless for gas & potty stops. There were some really nice rest stops along the way. Food was a great value, especially with the great current exchange rate, but even without it, the fresh pita pocket sandwich that was lunch was priced at $4.95 Canadian. The counter girl at Tim Horton’s was delighted when we asked for the “Tim-bits” (donut holes) just as it reads, but, for some reason, in Canada they say, “Tim-bites”. The only snafu was my debit card was declined as I had forgotten to let my credit union know about the travel and they are apparently sticklers for this. No worries though, I had backup and hubby was still in the U.S. of A. and could handle unfreezing my card. So we refilled our tummies and our tank and continued on the way.

The roads were, frankly, impressive. Nary a pothole in sight and well marked and well signed. All of the signs were in English, and in Quebec, in both English and French.   Man child got to work on math skills calculating mileage from kilometers to miles so we had an idea really how far we had to go. Mom got to revisit her rusty high school French on those road signs.

Surely we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

The last stop along the road before Montreal was in Quebec (Route 20 in Quebec which is 401 in Ontario), and featured a tourist info booth inside the rest stop. It was easy to know you were not in Kansas anymore as all the stop signs now said, “Arret”. That and all the posters on the windows of the rest stop and other instructions too. It was here the young lady handed me a map, in English, with her pen markings showing me the exact roads and even an “X” on where to park when I got there. I didn’t think until later I couldn’t take the van through the tunnels under the city in the way she routed me, but with her map I quickly found an alternative route, that, while taking a bit longer to get us to the Old City, helped us stay legal. (Quebec doesn’t allow propane-equipped vehicles in tunnels without turning it off, and I wasn’t chancing I could get it off and on, though simple, as with temps in the teens, we were going to need that heat even if we were trying to stealth camp. This was our first real trip with the van and I was trying to keep it simple.)

Off we went and in a short time found ourselves at Old Pier in the Old City just where she had recommended we park. No signs telling us we couldn’t overnight park and a sign charging by the hour, with 12 – 24 hour increment noted. No attendant on duty, probably as it was the off-season. It was perfect. And close. And simple. Done.

Part of our parking lot, which was really huge, in the Old Pier.
Ice fishing shacks in an area off our parking lot. This parking lot shown in a lower level, which would make a good sheltered place for the night.

We basically had the lot to ourselves. Not many head north as the Midwest thaws, and it was still wintertime in Montreal. We pulled out the warm gear we would need and took off to explore the Old City area.

The Old City was really old and looked what we would imagine is very European.

As night fell it really took on a magical look – snowflakes falling and lights glistening. We walked blocks and blocks, the man child and I just looking at the historical architecture and reading the signs, most in English and French. The obligatory Starbucks was in the Old City, for a Wi-Fi catch up, as was a McDonalds across the street. It was late and most of the shops were closed, but the Starbucks stayed open until 11 p.m. and the McDonalds even later. There were still many restaurants open. Man child found a Five Guys for a late dinner.

Historic old church in Montreal founded by Marguerite D’Youville, the first Canadian Saint. It was splendid!
Everything glistened in the cold, nighttime air and it really was like a movie when the snowflakes began to fall.

Back to the van later that night we settled in with our sleeping bags determined to only use the heat if needed so the security men in SUVs didn’t think we might be camping in the van. We made it through the night only running the heater for an hour or so. It was a perfect place; if you didn’t mind hearing others enter their cars as the bars emptied, some singing or talking loudly as they went by. But this tapered off and settled down.

In the morning time we got up, breakfasted in the van and headed out to finish our exploring. Old Montreal does look different in the day. I will say it was a lot more magical seeing it at night for the first time. It is a tad dirtier in the day, but a lot of this was due to the snow having melted a bit leaving the hidden trash exposed. The signs all over the buildings to watch for falling icicles were fun to see although we must have been a bit late in the season in mid-March to see any icicles.

Looking up toward Rue Notre Dame from Rue Saint Paul. Not much was open on this street yet.

We paid for entry into the Basilica of Notre Dame, looked through it, and came back later for the guided tour portion in English. It was only $9 to enter, $5 for adults and $4 for kids. Bring lots of singles and small bills to pay here as you pay in American and receive change back in Canadian. They don’t accept credit cards at the Basilica. It was worth the entry fee. A most beautiful church and it was worth waiting for the tour.

Basilica of Notre Dame, Montreal.
Looking from the back toward the altar. This area of the Basilica holds 3,500 people. We were told Celine Dion married here.
Gorgeous doesn’t begin to describe it.
Various paintings were around the sides of the church.

After our tour, we wandered down Rue San Paul and found an adorable café with fondue and crepes. To my surprise, the man child tried both and decided he really liked those French pancakes. He was decidedly certain also that Canadian maple syrup is better than ours here in the Midwest. Lunch prices seemed a bit steep in the restaurants along the Rue San Paul, with most in the $15 range. We managed to get out of the Crepe restaurant for $28 Canadian, but that was with ordering off the child’s menu. I had Fondue for lunch and the portion size was more than I could possibly eat. Simple fondue with a Caesar salad was $18.

This was an adorable 3 story restaurant. We just thought it was a tiny little place as we were seated downstairs, but were directed upstairs to use the restrooms. We then were surprised to find this restaurant was 3 stories tall.
Fondue in the Swiss manner. There were three different kinds of bread.
French crepes with scrambled egg and ham. It really helped the man child to have identifiable foods.

After looking in some touristy shops, trying some gelato, and looking at the poor cold looking horses that pull around the carriages, our visit came to close and we were on to the next stop. We paid our $24 Canadian at the parking exit and were off. Not a bad rate for a sleepover in a major city.

Looking down Rue Saint Paul.